National Forest Monitoring

Healthy peat soils – hidden gem for carbon storage


Hosted every year on 5 December, the World Soil Day 2021 cannot be celebrated without highlighting the importance of maintaining healthy soils, including healthy, wet peatlands, for ecosystem functioning and human well-being.  Healthy peat soils have the potential to store significantly more carbon than is present in the atmosphere. If drained and degraded, peatlands emit significant amounts of greenhouse gases – approximately five percent of the global carbon budget. 

Threats facing peat carbon stocks 

Peatlands are formed by the accumulation of organicmaterial in water-logged conditions. This characteristic allows peatlands to store up to 1/5 of the total global soil organic carbon. Peatland carbon is also estimated to be greater than the total carbon stored in the Earth’s vegetation and may currently equal the amount of carbon available in the atmosphere.  

However, approximately 15 percent of global peatlands have been drained to accommodate farming, forestry, or extractive industries, such as energy use. Fires are also a driver of peatland loss. Unlike fires in other ecosystem types that spread laterally, fires in peatlands spread downward, and underground. Thus, more carbon is released into the atmosphere. Burnt peatlands are also subjected to recurrent fires, consequently changing their role from a dependable carbon sink into a devastating carbon emitter. 

When peatlands are drained, the stored carbon is released into the atmosphere in the form of a set of greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane. Moreover, drained and degraded peatlands are more susceptible to the risks of frequent fires, land subsidence and subsequent flooding. 

Sustainable peatland management  

The sustainable management and conservation of peatlands are needed to prevent the release of carbon from peat soil. To ensure that peatland conservation is a success, the key step is to verify the location and extent of peatlands to allow communities and countries to effectively manage these valuable resources and their ecosystem services sustainably. Moreover, it is critical to secure the livelihoods of local communities living around a peatland by diversifying sustainable peatland practices that do not threaten the peatland function, such as sustainable use of fisheries, or certain types of biomass production on wet peatlands, ‘paludiculture.’ 

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and an abundant list of partners have jointly collected case studies of sustainable peatland practices since 2014. These practices can help practitioners, land managers, and policymakers to identify locally suitable, context-specific, and sustainable practices. FAO also continues to invite new partners to submit cases to this collection.    

Peatlands and climate action 

Some national governments have acknowledged the significance of peatland ecosystems in achieving their climate commitments. During side events held at the Peatland Pavilion of the UNFCCC COP26, countries such as Peru and Indonesia discussed the opportunities and challenges of incorporating peatlands into their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies (LTSs). NDCs and LTSs are official national documents embedded at the heart of the Paris Agreement, and they map out countries’ plans to adapt to and mitigate climate change. 

The agreement reached at COP26 in November 2021, also known as the Glasgow Climate Pact, encourages countries to protect their ecosystems, and specifically requests national governments to “revisit and strengthen the 2030 targets in NDCs…by the end of 2022.” Notably, an upcoming FAO publication with the Global Peatlands Initiative will help to identify good, concrete ways to integrate peatlands into climate commitments. 

However, there is still more to be done to overcome barriers and achieve robust soil organic carbon measurement, mapping, monitoring and reporting, especially in peatland ecosystems. Ultimately, the sustainable management of peatlands is a sensible step towards achieving part of our climate goals, with the help of healthy soils. Let’s save our peatlands to not only secure this hidden gem, but also mitigate climate change. 

Explore FAO resources on soils 

More details on peatlands, carbon sequestration and best management practices can be found in the recently published FAO technical manual of management practices. This publication was designed to help readers understand how soils sequester and maintain soil organic carbon. Several parts of this manual act as a guide on managing peatlands in ways that help maintain the carbon stored in the ground.  

In particular, Volume 2 of the manual describes why peatlands – also called ‘organic soils’, ‘bogs’, ‘fens’, ‘swamps’, or ‘mires’, are hotspots. This means that they are very sensitive to climate change and can easily become sources of greenhouse gas emissions due to their high soil organic carbon content. For this reason, peatland conservation and restoration are extremely important for climate change mitigation and adaptation.   

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